When Sitka High School volleyball coach John Franceschini compares his team to the Juneau-Douglas Crimson Bears, he sees teams playing at two different levels.
He sees Juneau as a squad needing just a little bit of fine-tuning before it's ready to compete with the elite teams in the state. Franceschini's Wolves, on the other hand, feature several inexperienced players needing to get more varsity matches under their belts before they can compete at the same level as the Crimson Bears.
The two teams will face each other for a pair of Region V-Class 4A matches tonight and Saturday night at Sitka High School.
"Our main priority vs. a team like Juneau is to get as far as we can against them and enjoy doing it," Franceschini said. "We just hope we can improve as much as we can and be competitive."
Juneau only has four returners this year from its team that took third place in the Class 4A state tournament last year - senior setter Callan Janowiec, senior middle blocker Amy Neussl, senior outside hitter Kelly Baxter and junior outside hitter Julie Heard - but all four returners were starters, which gives the Crimson Bears a strong core group to build around.
The test for the Crimson Bears has been to integrate its new varsity players into the lineup with the four returners, and so far Juneau appears to be passing the test. Juneau's varsity swept a pair of region matches from Ketchikan to open the season last weekend, winning 15-1, 15-2, 15-0 on Friday and 15-3, 15-5, 15-6 on Saturday. The weekend before, Juneau's top squad went to the preseason Sitka Jamboree and posted a 14-0 record in seven two-game mini-matches. These will be Sitka's first full matches of the season.
"I think we're having a better time in practice," Baxter said. "Sitka will be more of a challenge than Ketchikan. We're working more together."
Last weekend against Ketchikan, Juneau posted a team attack percentage of .341 (attack percentage is figured as kills minus attack errors divided by attack attempts, and anything over .200 is considered a good match).
"I think we played OK, but we were a little slow on Saturday," Juneau's Mary Wilcock said.
"We played much better on Friday," said teammate Alessia Bonanno, who is an exchange student from Rome, Italy. "In Italy I played on a club team for six years, but we didn't travel like this. It's about the same level team. There are a few things I prefer here, like here the coaches are a lot more friendly."
Neussl led Juneau with 17 kills for the two matches, four solo blocks and a perfect 24-for-24 serving with six aces. Baxter had 16 kills and was a perfect 14-for-14 serving. Janowiec served seven aces, had a .800 attack percentage with four kills and had six digs, while Heard had seven kills and seven digs. Other Crimson Bears included Karla Dunivin with seven kills, Megan Treston with two solo blocks and three block assists, Nikki Bennett with two aces and four digs, Ryia Waldern with two block assists and Bonanno with four kills and four digs.
"Looking at them at the Jamboree, Juneau's already playing at a level we'll hope to achieve by the end of the season," said Franceschini, who is Sitka's third head coach in three years, returning after a couple of seasons off to the team he's helped coach off and on for 15 years. "And they'll only get better. We'd like to give Juneau some competition."
Franceschini said only one of his players - outside hitter Sidney Wyman - saw a lot of action on last year's senior-laden team, while middle blocker Roxanne Korthuis saw some varsity time but is battling an injured shoulder. His other starters are middle blocker Lexi Fish, outside hitter Kelly Revard and setters Teal Schlins and Cora Palmer.
"Our biggest thing is a lack of experience," Franceschini said. "We're having to work on a lot of individual skills, and passing is a real weakness right now."
Juneau will also take junior varsity and C teams to Sitka this weekend.
Charles Bingham can be reached at email@example.com.